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House of Commons

Friday 19 February 1993

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Orders of the Day

Right to Know Bill

Order for Second Reading Read.

9.34 am

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Sir Humphrey, permanent secretary to the right hon. Jim Hacker, said in the very first edition of "Yes Minister" :

"Open government is a contradiction in terms. You can have openness. Or you can have government. You can't have both." The Bill seeks to prove Sir Humphrey wrong. It asserts that openness and freedom of information are essential if we are to have an efficient democracy in which people can be involved.

Recently, the public learned that some apple juice made from windfalls contained a chemical, patulin, which is toxic and could cause cancer if taken in enormous quantities. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had known that information for some months, but had not published it. It was a small earthquake in the history of public information and, as far as we know, no one was hurt--but the reactions of the Government and of the public were contrasting and rather interesting.

The Government could see nothing wrong in keeping that information to themselves. "Leave it to us," they said. "Trust us--we decide what is good for you. Only we really understand the scientific evidence, and to have published it would just have stirred up anxiety." The press took a different attitude and were fairly angry : "If that information was so innocuous, why not publish it? Let us know what is and is not in apple juice. Let us judge whether to buy it for ourselves and our children."

That incident encapsulated some of the attitudes and concerns behind the Bill, which focuses on two key questions. The first is, who should know? Should it be the Government and civil servants, or all of us? The second is, who should decide what we know? Should it be Ministers or a form of independent arbitration?

The principle behind the Bill is straightforward and simple. In a democracy, free access to information should be a basic, fundamental right. That principle is enshrined in the United Nations declaration of human rights and in the European convention on human rights. It was well expressed by the early American President, James Madison : "A people who mean to be their own Government must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

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The Bill is based on the belief that we, the public, have a right to know what the Government are doing in our name, with our money, on our behalf.

That is necessary because Britain is still one of the most secretive societies in the western world and one of the few democracies not to have some form of freedom of information legislation. Neither the public nor Members of Parliament have an absolute right to information. We receive it by the grace and favour of Ministers and civil servants, and right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will have noticed the increasing use, when parliamentary questions are answered, of replies such as "This information is not available," or "This information is too expensive to compile," or "This information is no longer centrally collected". Usually, the questions are reasonable, and the answers would be of assistance to the quality of understanding and public debate. But Ministers and civil servants decide what is good for us--not our needs or rights.

The Bill tries to correct that, in a practical, legislative form. It has its origins in the Official Information Bill introduced by a former Liberal Member of Parliament, Sir Clement Freud, in 1979, and in several Bills introduced by other hon. Members--some of whom, I am glad to note, are present in the Chamber. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and, most notably, the hon. Member for Aldridge and Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) who has often carried the flag for the issue on the Government Benches--if not alone, at least with enormous tenacity and conviction.

They also include my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), whom I am glad to see in his place, and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Birmingham Members have an extremely good record of introducing in the 1980s freedom of information measures that, although small, made important gains.

The Bill owes much to the work outside the House of journalists such as Mr. Peter Hennessy and Mr. Richard Norton-Taylor. Above all, hon. Members will recognise that it owes its present shape and existence, which has grown gradually throughout the 1980s, to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which was established in 1984 as a result of the generosity of Mr. Geoffrey Bradman, and particularly to the director of the campaign, Mr. Maurice Frankel. When--I emphasise when rather than if--the people of Britain get the right to know, they should thank Mr. Frankel above all others. The House and the public owe him a considerable debt.

The Bill is sponsored by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am grateful for their support, which I value. In going to the heart of our democracy, this issue should, and indeed does, go beyond party politics. It should appeal to libertarian conservatives who wish to empower the individual against the corporate state as much as it does to liberals who want to attain greater freedom and to socialists who want to give people stronger rights and to provoke them, through information, to question those in authority, and thus perhaps to change society.

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The Bill leans heavily on the experience of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all of which introduced freedom of information legislation in 1984 and which have similar parliamentary and judicial systems to ours.

In a press release, the Minister said that the Bill is lengthy and complicated. It is somewhat long for a private Member's Bill, but it is not very complicated. The essence of the Bill can be described quite simply and straightforwardly. It gives people access to all the information and records that are held by Government Departments, local councils and bodies that are financed or regulated by the state.

Those bodies will be obliged to publish schedules or directories of the information they hold, so that the public know what is available and can apply to see the information they want. That should be produced within 30 days. Individuals will be able to see all their medical records, including those before 1991, and personal files such as employment records. At present, Ministers and civil servants decide and control what we should see. The Bill will transfer that power to the public and give them the right to know.

Certain categories of information are exempted if publishing them would cause significant damage, particularly to national security, defence and international relations, the enforcement of the law, personal privacy and commercial confidentiality. The strategic policy advice given to Ministers by civil servants is also exempt, but not the information or material by which ministerial decisions are made, or expert and technical advice.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : I recognise that there must be exemptions, but my hon. Friend mentioned commercial confidentiality. Who will decide whether something is commercially confidential? I am thinking particularly of something that makes me very angry indeed. Government money is provided to training and enterprise councils and local enterprise companies for training purposes, but we have no right to know what is being offered, to whom or at what price. The public have no right to know what the TECs and LECs are doing to train our young people. Would the Bill deal with that issue?

Mr. Fisher : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The exemption of commercial confidentiality will probably be tested more than any other. Experience in Australia shows that legislation is most used to gain access to personal files and records, but probably the most contentious area is commercial confidentiality, because it is so difficult to describe.

There is quite proper commercial confidentiality, but it can be used as a smokescreen. I am thinking of the time that my hon. Friends and I went to try to talk to the chariman of British Coal about the pits that are in danger of being closed. We asked for detailed information pit by pit, but were told that it was impossible, because it would be commercially confidential. It is hard to understand that, in an industry that has a virtual monopoly, there may be some concern about the negotiation of gas prices and contracts.

"Commercial confidentiality" is an elastic phrase ; to answer the question by my hon. Friend the Member for

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Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), adjudication would be by an independent tribunal and commissioner, but I shall elaborate on that in a moment.

Policy advice by civil servants is properly exempt, although not the technical and expert advice that they may receive. For instance, the various legal opinions that the Government sought this week on the interpretation of the Maastricht treaty would be made public and would not be exempt under the Bill, but the advice given by civil servants to the Attorney-General or the Foreign Secretary about how and when best to release it to cause the minimum embarrassment to the Government--if such a thing were possible after Monday--would be exempt. The advice that a Minister receives on how to use information is a matter for Ministers and civil servants, but the technical advice that the Government receive is not.

It is proper that we should see those contrasting legal opinions, and I regret that the Prime Minister has written today to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition saying that he is not prepared to release them. What could we lose? They are interesting and proper opinions, which concern all hon. Members. Perhaps the House does not need to see that advice, certainly not so far as embarrassment goes, as its results were written clearly in the blushes of the Foreign Secretary on Monday night. But for the greater understanding of what is going on, it would be good to see that advice.

Hon. Members may consider--my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie does--that the exemptions, which are modelled on those in operation in other countries with freedom of information legislation, provide considerable opportunities for loopholes to evade at least the spirit of the Bill ; they certainly do that, but it is impossible to draft legislation that closes those loopholes. Therefore, the enforcement of the Bill--the adjudication mechanism when the disclosure of information is challenged or withheld--is crucial if it is to have any meaning.

The Bill provides, first, for a process of voluntary internal review. If that is not deemed satisfactory, it establishes an independent tribunal and commissioner appointed by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and a Select Committee. The commissioner and tribunal shall have the powers of the court to call for information or records and their findings will have the same force as a court order. The commissioner will lay a report before the House annually.

The creation of a tribunal and commissioner is important, as the power and responsibility for deciding what the public should know should be taken away from politicians and given to an arm's-length, independent body. Information is too powerful and important to be left in the hands of any politicians. When Ministers make a mistake, whatever party is in office, there is always a temptation to save their embarrassment. I know that a Labour Government have taken that route in the past and that, if Labour were in power again without this legislation, it would take that route again. It is right that that power should be taken away. Otherwise, the essence of the legislation falls.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he aware that he may be taking from Parliament a power that he would not wish to take--the power to assess, monitor and question the tribunal?

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If the Bill became law, how would Parliament monitor the workings of the tribunal to ensure that the system was working properly if we could not question it?

Mr. Fisher : As I said, the commissioner will lay an annual report before Parliament and we hope that the Leader of the House will provide an opportunity for us to debate it. However, the workings of the tribunal and the commissioner would also be subject to the scrutiny of the Select Committee which appoints the commissioner in the first place. Those provisions and ministerial accountability would mean that the House had plenty of opportunity to scrutinise, and to maintain the House's scrutiny of, the workings of the tribunal.

The Bill would also reform the Official Secrets Act 1989, which is perhaps getting into more controversial territory, by ending the absolute offence of any disclosure, however justified, and by providing the possibility of a public interest defence such as that allowed by the courts to Clive Ponting, and a defence, when necessary, of prior publication.

Finally, the Bill would amend the Companies Act 1985. For this part of the Bill, I am especially indebted to the pioneering work of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr. It would require companies to publish in their annual report all instances of their being found to be in breach of legislation on environmental protection, health and safety, discrimination, trades description and other consumer protections listed. In addition to the annual accounts that they lodge with Companies House, companies would be required to provide a list of injuries and fatalities to their work force during the year. It seems right and proper that, when the private sector is becoming more and more powerful--75 per cent. of world trade is dominated by 500 multinational companies, probably giving them far greater power than most Governments--there should be a rudimentary social audit so that the public, shareholders and the press can know which companies deliberately and flagrantly breach the law and find it cheaper to pay the fines than to amend their actions.

I hope that all hon. Members will consider that such provisions show good common sense and, I trust, sweet reason. However, there is no doubt that they would change things--I believe, for the better. They would lead to better public debate, because it would be based on information and informed choices. Information would be shared generally by the public and by all hon. Members, and not only by Government Departments and Ministers.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) : My hon. Friend refers to the need for and importance of public debate. Does he agree that the public's right to know must be accompanied by the means to know? Although a great deal of information can be communicated between an authority and an individual on a personal basis, the dissemination of much information to the public also depends on free and rigorous media, especially a free and rigorous press. Does he agree that, to be effective, the Bill, which I strongly support, needs to be accompanied by changes that would make it possible to create a freer and more pluralistic press, whereas, at the moment, there is a tendency to move in the opposite direction? I am thinking especially of the most discouraging actions of Mirror Group Newspapers.

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Mr. Fisher : I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. There is a commonly held view--a misapprehension--that we have a very strong press in Britain. In fact, the reverse is true--we have one of the most constrained presses in the western world. Our laws of libel and contempt of court hedge around the press to restrict their commenting in the way that other presses can in the public interest. Our press's lack of ability to get the truth of a story means that much of its investigative role is blunted. The Bill would undoubtedly strengthen the press, which I agree is desirable and necessary.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : My hon. Friend and the House have surely taken note of the important judgment yesterday that public authorities, especially elected authorities, cannot use the laws of libel against those who seek to criticise them. The fact that such a case was brought in the first place by Derbyshire county council means that there is a climate in which such an action to try to muzzle the press or individuals would be acceptable. The Bill would contribute to the opening up of the press, but the House must also send other signals to the Government and other elected authorities that the press is entitled to comment freely and openly on the actions of democratically elected authorities.

Mr. Fisher : I agree with my hon. Friend. I was relieved to learn of yesterday's judgment that an elected authority such as Derbyshire authority cannot win such a case. It is an important and interesting precedent.

I was talking about the improvement in public debate on an informed basis, so that we have a level playing field of information. I referred to the pit closure programme. Those of us who have been fighting for the pits have been frustrated by not being able to get detailed information pit by pit. It has meant that public debate on a key industrial issue has, on the whole, been conducted by assertion from the Government and counter- assertion from the Opposition, not on an informed, detailed understanding and knowledge of the pits. If we, as a society, are to judge and make a decision on such a key issue, it surely makes sense for us to have all the figures on each pit, so that we can make up our own minds. However, that is not the case at the moment.

The Bill would lead to better decisions being taken by Ministers and local authority departments. The minds of Ministers, civil servants, local government officials and leaders would be wonderfully concentrated by the thought that the public had access to the information and records on which they made their decisions. Surely there is nothing wrong with that, if the information was not exempt. It would imbue caution and thought, which are not always present. At the moment, Ministers merely have to come up with answers to political problems, but, to return to mathematics lessons at school, if they had to show their workings and knew that the information on which they based their decisions was open to scrutiny, things would change considerably.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it would also be very useful from the point of view of shining the rather tarnished image of politicians? We are going through a period in which people are fearful of what will happen to legal aid, but they are witnessing what appears to be a plot when three of the most senior civil servants in Whitehall did not tell the Comptroller and Auditor General that they were going to pay the legal fees

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of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We found out only because a whistleblower contacted a newspaper. Surely that does nothing for the reputation of Government or for open government or the citizens charter.

Mr. Fisher : My hon. Friend anticipates my next point, and makes a telling point himself.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : He lowers the tone.

Mr. Fisher : No, he does not lower the tone. With greater accountability and shared information will inevitably come greater credibility for politicians, not only in such high-profile and contentious cases. When they return to their constituencies at the weekend, all hon. Members must be only too painfully aware that the standing and credibility of politicians of all parties are probably at an all-time low. People feel alienated from the political process and unless we understand that, I suspect that we are deluding ourselves. It is not a question of which party they support ; I believe that the credibility of the Government and politicans, local and national, is at an all-time low.

Freedom of information cannot in itself change that, but it would alter the fact that, when people turn on their television and watch the proceedings of the House, they get bored by assertion and counter-assertion, the "yah- boo, sucks" of politics, and the lack of detailed and serious debate. If it improves the quality of that debate, freedom of information will mean that it will be less a case of prejudice battering against prejudice ; it will considerably improve the credibility of politicians and the political process, and we should all be better off for that.

There is a further way in which the Bill would help. This is a rather Thatcherite argument, which may be surprising from an Opposition Member. Freedom of information would undoubtedly help to make a better and more efficient use of whatever Government expenditure was available.

Health is an example in my constituency. The constituency has an industrial profile, so many constituents have lung disease from working down the pits or in the pot banks. Every man of my age or older has his lungs full of dust. When the men come to my surgery on Friday nights, they breathe through volumes of water. Both the local authority and the health authority have general policies to try to deal with the problem, and they work with employers for better conditions at work.

It was only three years ago, when the university of Leeds was commissioned by the health authority and by the local authority to carry out a detailed study, that we suddenly knew information that we did not have before. A ward-by-ward profile revealed that, in one ward in my constituency, 52 per cent. of men died before they reached retirement age.

It was only when the huge variations around the city were seen that public opinion and the policy-making process began to be galvanised. The health authority, the housing department and others were brought together. We realised that the problem was related to the dampness of the houses and to our attempts to modernise them by putting in central heating, which increased condensation and made the problem worse.

It was only the information that triggered the determination and the resourcing. We did not get any

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money, and we could not find any more money, but we are now using the money more efficiently because we know more about the incidence of a problem about which we have known for 100 years, but which we have never understood in detail. The efficient use of money as a result of information is a key point.

I have talked about macro-issues, such as the press, democracy and credibility. More than anything else, the important point is that the Bill would empower individuals. When I began to promote the Bill, and went round the country listening and talking to people, I did not appreciate that point enough. It has been the point that has most impressed me during the campaign.

The Bill would give greater choice to people and it would give them greater knowledge with which to make the choices in their lives. It would also give people more ownership over their lives. [Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) want to intervene?

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : No.

Mr. Fisher : I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was rising in his place. I say the words "choice" and "ownership" to him, and he leaves his place immediately. I am sad to see him go.

Choice does not apply simply to matters of food and food safety, important though they are. There are sometimes tragic consequences from not having information and from not making choices. Hon. Members will recall the fire at Bradford football club. It was only after the fire, in which more than 50 people died, that it was learnt that the local authority had been in correspondence with the football club for some months and had pointed out to it that the stand was an unacceptable fire hazard. We cannot guarantee that the fire would not have happened if the information had been in the public domain, but it would have been surprising if the media in Bradford had not put pressure on the Health and Safety Executive, on the fire authority and on the club. Things would have changed.

The people who went to watch their football club and who died did so without making an informed choice. They might have gone even if they had known the risks, but at least they would have had a chance to make a choice. They did not have that choice, and they died. The same is true of the King's Cross fire, of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster and of many other tragedies in which people did not know the risks involved.

In the case of King's Cross, the Fennell report shows that the risks were known to the various authorities long before the fire and were debated between them. However, the information was never in the public domain. It cannot be right that our constituents risk their lives in ignorance of the safety record of places such as British Rail stations and London Underground stations.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : There was another fire in Bradford recently, in which, mercifully, no one was killed. There is a major chemical works in my constituency called Allied Colloids. There was a conflagration there for which, to give my hon. Friend and idea of the scale, 35 appliances turned out. Several hundred firemen combated a serious chemical fire.

Many of my constituents are concerned that the composition of the chemicals stored on the site is not known. One of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of

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the Bill is that such information needs to be known not only by the workers, who have the right to knowledge, but by residents in the surrounding area. They are apprehensive about the risks involved.

Mr. Fisher : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he makes a telling point. I expect that many hon. Members would find similar circumstances in their constituencies. It is wrong that our constituents should be ignorant of potentially lethal dangers in their communities.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : The nuclear industry provides a fairly controversial example of what the hon. Gentleman describes. The nuclear industry has done damage to itself by being unnecessarily secretive at times. That has led people to be suspicious even if there has been no need to be.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main arguments in favour of the Bill is the need to get away from the style of management in which management have information that other people do not have? Management tend to make decisions on the availability of information, and they keep information to themselves. Far better decisions will be taken when information is generally available.

Mr. Fisher : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Nuclear power raises a crucial distinction, at the heart of the Bill, between information and public relations. Sellafield has done a superb job, in its terms, of opening itself to the public, inviting people to come to the visitors' centre and advertising on television. All that is to be welcomed.

However, the public should be aware that there is a great difference between knowing all the facts and being presented with a public relations exercise which includes a lot of welcome facts. That is rather different from having a wide range of information which would allow the public not only to go to Sellafield and to hear the case put by British Nuclear Fuels, but to put the information into context so that they can make their own judgment in a more informed way. The distinction between public relations information and the whole range of information is the key to our assessment of our children's schools, of health authorities, of hospitals and of many other matters. Hon. Members will understand that key distinction. The Bill would affect individuals in terms of choice and in terms of ownership. The question of medical records and of employment records has especially changed my attitude when working on the Bill. Hon. Members may have seen a recent edition of Ms. Joan Bakewell's television programme "Heart of the Matter", in which she studied terminally ill patients and their knowledge of their health and life expectancy, in relation to the Bill and to freedom of information. One especially moving and tragic case was that of a woman who had had slowly creeping multiple sclerosis for 20 years. Her husband and her general practitioner had got together to keep that fact from her. When she eventually found out the truth, she had to rethink her whole life. She had believed that she was less than competent as a mother, as a housekeeper, as a wife and as a friend. Each year, she could do less, and her self-esteem went down. She thought that she was stupid, incompetent and not very able. When she discovered that she was ill and that the information had been kept from her, she suddenly felt that she had lost

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all control over and ownership of her life. That story can be replicated around the country, and it is extremely worrying and tragic.

The same is true of employment records, because our identity as people is so much tied up with work. If there is wrong information on an employee's file, he has no control over his work life. Self-esteem and the judgment of one's own ability may be affected by the inability to win promotion, although what is blocking an employee may be simply wrong information, which, if made available, could be put right. That is wrong and must be put right.

Better decisions, better understanding, the more efficient use of money and an improvement for individuals add up to a case for saying that the Bill will change the culture of decision making and will begin to put an end to secrecy, which is a creeping British disease.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : The hon. Gentleman has referred to the culture in which decisions are made, and thereby to the quality of public debate. Does he agree that the great prize to be had from freedom of information is the better opportunity and encouragement that it would give the press and broadcasters to engage in serious and substantial discussion of the important issues concerning the state of society and public policy? They would be better able to resist the pressure to trivialise placed on them by competition, and all too often, as has been mentioned, by the circumstances of the ownership of the media.

Mr. Fisher : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I welcome an observation of that kind from the Conservative Benches. His views are probably shared on both sides of the House.

Although I have outlined a fairly substantial case, how can anyone object to the sweet reason of that case? Judging from the press release that the Minister's office issued on 9 February, I fear that he will argue against it. As he will speak after me, I shall try to anticipate some of his reservations, criticisms and arguments. I fear that the Minister will try to claim that the legislation is too bureaucratic. He will say that it may be well intentioned, but that it is too bureaucratic and a typical Labour initiative. As the Minister will be aware from his research, there is no evidence of too great a bureaucracy in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. When Australia introduced its freedom of information legislation, it allowed for about 800 civil servants. It did not appoint half that number, and, within months, it reduced the number by 200 or 300. There are now about 200 or 300 civil servants in total. There is no evidence that the legislation is hugely bureaucratic. The office of Sir John Grace, the information commissioner in Canada, is very small. The Minister is aware of that, and he will be hard put to justify criticism on those grounds. The Minister may claim that we cannot afford the legislation. Again, the figures are not on his side. In 1990-91, the legislation in Canada cost £11.5 million. As that figure includes the cost of administering the Canadian privacy legislation and all its ramifications, it is probably an over-estimate. In 1991-92, the legislation in Australia cost £5.8 million.

If we aggregate the figures on that basis to a country the size of ours, we could anticipate that legislation in this country would cost between £20 million and £30 million a

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year. That figure seems to be in line with the estimates of Mr. Robert Hazell who, when he was a civil servant, carried out research in the countries that I have mentioned and in this country for the Home Office. If that figure is correct, that £20 million or £30 million would be very well spent indeed.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Would that figure not be a very small fraction of the cost of the decisions that have been taken? If the decisions are better made, there may be a considerable net saving and no cost at all.

Mr. Fisher : There is anecdotal evidence in Australia that some major public initiatives or large infrastructure initiatives affecting the environment have, as a result of the Australian legislation and public scrutiny, proved unnecessary and undesirable and were therefore dropped. The anecdotal evidence is that that saved hundreds of millions of pounds. I believe that that experience would be replicated here.

The legislation can save money and make more efficient use of money. It will cost money. However, there is perhaps the more trivial and party political case that, in respect of initiatives such as the citizens charter --costing £7 million in advertising this year--the citizens charter unit--costing an estimated £23 million over the next three years--and, quite rightly, the Central Office of Information, which costs £150 million, the £20 million or £30 million which the legislation would cost would be one of the best investments that the Government could possibly make in our future.

The Minister may also claim that the legislation is a lawyer's charter, but there is no evidence for that. In Australia, 74 per cent. of applications every year are granted in full ; 22 per cent. are granted in part, and only 4 per cent. are denied. Of 25,000 applications for information, only 68 go to appeal. Admittedly, at the appeal stage and particularly with an independent tribunal and commissioner, the case against the Government Department or local authority should properly be argued by lawyers. However, if there are going to be only 60 or 100 cases a year in Britain, that can hardly constitute a lawyer's charter.

Finally, the Minister may say that the legislation might be a barrack room lawyer's charter, and that there will be a huge number of voluminous, frivolous and mischievous applications--people might come along and say, "I want to see everything you've got under that heading."

However, the Bill anticipates that. Clause 27 states that when there are substantial and unreasonable demands on an authority, that can be a reason for refusing to give information. If that were challenged, the case could be taken to the independent tribunal or commissioner. I do not believe that that body would have any truck with frivolous and mischievous applications.

The nub of the Minister's case against the Bill will be that, in his view, it is the wrong methodology and wrong type of legislation. When the Minister finally negotiates his White Paper, I suspect that he will propose some form of voluntary means of releasing more information, perhaps supported by an ombudman. Essentially, the power of whether information should enter the public domain will

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still remain with Ministers and Government. There is in that respect a substantial and fundamental difference between the Minister and me.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : The hon. Gentleman paid tribute earlier to Mr. Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Will he acknowledge that last July in The Guardian , Mr. Frankel paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his open government initiative?

Mr. Fisher : He certainly did. I welcome the Prime Minister's rhetoric. I believe that he is the first Prime Minister in this country to say on the record that he wants to blow away at least some of the cobwebs of secrecy in our society. Many of us feel that that is a rather timid remark, from a rather timid Prime Minister, but the remark is welcome. I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy's statement that he is not in principle against legislation, although he may not favour the recommendations in my Bill.

The comments of the Prime Minister and of the Chancellor of the Duchy are a huge improvement on the attitude of previous Governments, but their words have yet to be substantiated by deeds. They have not yet been susbstantiated by a White Paper. I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy is having difficulty negotiating with some Departments.

There is a big difference between a genuinely open system that takes power from the hands of Ministers, and the voluntary system, which I suspect that the Government favour, which will still maintain the essence of the present situation, in which Ministers control and tell us what we ought to know.

The Minister will say, "Trust us. We will be a better Government." He may demonstrate that with some small, but welcome, initiatives, but that is no longer enough. The public no longer want to trust politicans. They want an absolute right to know. With sensible exemptions and caveats, the public should have the right to know. I suspect that there is a major difference in methodology between the Minister and the Bill. However, the right hon. Gentleman will concede that there is much common ground in principle, in direction and in much of the detail in the Bill. That leaves him with a rather interesting problem in responding.

I suspect that the Minister's rather large brief will say, in effect, "Be kind, but kill it." I suspect that his civil service advice, which of course would be exempt under the terms of the Bill because it is private between the Chancellor's civil servants and himself, will state, from the Minister's own favourite Sir Humphrey, something along the lines of : "The Government doesn't want to be seen to be against the principle of the Bill. To do so would make nonsense of an oft-repeated claim by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to be serious about openness and blowing away some of the cobwebs of secrecy.' However, Sir Robin Butler in No. 10 Downing street has made it quite clear that this Bill shall not become law"--underlined several times--"in any form"--underlined several more times. "The Permanent Secretaries at the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food insist on this. The Bill will be allowed, or may be allowed, a Second Reading today, but its progress into Committee must be impeded and, at worst, delayed, until it is too late for it to have any chance of

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completing its stages through Parliament. If it gets into Committee, it must be filibustered. If it gets to Report and Third Reading, it must be sunk by a mass of friendly and constructive amendments. If it gets to the Lords, heads will roll in this Department. This Bill must have no right to go any further."

I suspect that the advice is something along those lines. It may also say, "However, the Minister may usefully use the threat of this further progress to encourage the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ease their opposition to the White Paper and resistance to the Minister's preferred option of a voluntary system and an ombudsman." I am not sure whether I have got all the words right in the Minister's brief, but we shall hear in a minute whether there has been a leak. I assure the Minister that there has not. Mine is an active imagination, but not a great one. If that is the gist of the Minister's case, it is not good enough. He knows in his heart of hearts that he has lost the argument. Times have changed. Now that we can see the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand examples, many of his fears have been proven practically in those countries to be groundless. There has been a campaign around the country, with thousands of postcards and letters sent to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and there has been a wide debate in the national press recently, as well as public meetings all over the country, in which hon. Members have participated. We have seen the campaign of Charter 88, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, article 19 and Liberty.

The Minister knows that he has lost the public argument and that people want the right to know. It is not that people do not want to trust Ministers or be dependent on Ministers or local government officials any longer. The Minister knows that the game is up and that things must change. In doing so, we will end the nanny state and begin to open up government--I think that the Minister sincerely wants that--and end secrecy. Secrecy is genuinely a corrosive disease in us, both as individuals and as society. It is not only dark secrecy. It is difficult and painful when one tries to hide things.

As children, we find that one of the processes of growing up is coming to terms with secrets and dark and unknown areas in people, facing difficult areas and opening them up to the light, and gaining control and ownership of oneself. If that is a description in part of the experience of many people going from childhood to adulthood, it should also be an adequate description of a democracy going from childhood to adulthood. Surely it is time that we grew up in this society and had the right to share information which is paid for with taxpayers' money and collected in our name but withheld from us. Let us be brave today as we begin to open up democracy and government. After all, this is only a small step. The debate today is about the principle, but the public debate should not be about the principle of whether we have freedom of information in the United Kingdom : the intelligent debate for an intelligent democracy is about what form, what controls and what administration we should have. That is the serious debate on the issue--it is not whether we should have it.

Surely it is manifestly true that we should have freedom of information. The real challenge is not getting freedom of information--it will come whether the Minister allows us to have it this year or next year--but how we use it when we have it. Mr. Robert Hazell, in his assessment which is

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in front of the Minister and in his published articles, made that clear, when he said that probably the worst thing that could happen would be if it were forced on a reluctant Government who did not back it, were not enthusiastic about it and killed it with neglect. If we are to have freedom of information, as we will and as we must, we must have a Government who are enthusiastic about it. I suspect that the Minister is enthusiastic about freedom of information and goes out and promotes its opportunities as enthusiastically as he promoted his citizens charter initiatives. That is what the Government and the country need. We must begin to open up democracy, stimulate people to ask questions and begin to change society for the better. Whatever the political ways in which we wish to change society, we must change it, because we know that we are not doing as well as we should be. Today gives us that chance.

We have everything to gain : better democracy, better debate, better decisions, better efficiency, better accountability and even greater credibility. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree to approve the principle of the Bill and give it a Second Reading. In doing so, they will start the process of giving people the right to know.

10.25 am

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